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Setting the Stage

The balmy climate and stunning foliage contained in a tropical or semi-tropical setting can provide many opportunities for creating dramatic lighting designs. A perfectly lit palm tree can become a living piece of art that frames the rest of the site. A great lighting design can not only add to the inherent beauty of a tropical setting…it can also magnify it.

Tropical settings are typically filled with unique site conditions specific to that particular location. These uncommon circumstances offer many challenges for lighting designers. Not only do designers need to concern themselves with creating a great design, they also need to educate themselves on various environmental regulations. For example, in Florida there are laws regarding the nesting habits of sea turtles that prohibit certain light sources from being used near coastal areas. In addition, designers need to learn about the types of quality lighting materials that will holdup over a long period of time. Weather plays a large role in choosing the right products and plant material for a lighted tropical setting.

LASN Magazine asked three lighting professionals to offer their advice on creating spectacular lighting designs within a tropical or semi-tropical setting. What follows is each designer’s personal perspective on exploring the many possibilities of these very special environments.

According to Robert M. Dugan principal at EDSA, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lighting design for the tropics presents many tremendous opportunities for dramatic results. Some successful lighting projects include: Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel, Spa & Casino, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Robert M. Dugan

Robert M. Dugan is a Principal at EDSA in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a leading planning and landscape architectural firm practicing since 1960.

Lighting design for the tropics presents tremendous opportunity for dramatic results given the vivid shapes and forms of plant material, and the generally heavy use of outdoor environments year round. In one sense there is great freedom of expression possible by liberal use of light; the climatic constraints of ice and snow are nonexistent, and the tropical environment supports a wealth of powerful landscape forms that can be made memorable through lighting. Conversely, due to tropical climatic factors, technical issues of excess moisture, corrosion due to saline environments, and structural integrity in the face of strong winds are all factors in lighting design.

Enhancing Plant Material

Royal Mirage Jumeira Beach Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Palm species present a wide variety of opportunities to produce dramatic lighting effects. The grand scale and form of many large palms including Coconuts, Dates, Royal Palms, and others lend themselves well to both uplighting and downlighting, using the palm as a post from which to light ground surfaces without adding freestanding poles to a space. Since palm trunks remain the same diameter as the plant grows, unlike broadleaf trees, compression bands and other non-invasive attachments are very successful for mounting fixtures, providing that compact, relatively lightweight units are utilized.

Protecting the Palm

Boca Raton Resort and Club, Boca Raton, Florida

In many species of palms, any penetration of the trunk tissue leads to wounds that never heal, creating areas for infection. In any of these applications, the use of low-voltage systems is a wise option, not only for energy conservation and bulb life, but also to avoid running higher voltage cable exposed up palm trunks. Many municipalities we’ve worked with require the use of conduit in lieu of exterior Romex for exposed electrical runs up tree trunks; this option is very difficult to disguise, unlike slender low-voltage cable which can be stabilized with small cable ties that blend into the background. Ground lighting through palm canopies to structures behind to silhouette the plant creates dramatic effects on a large scale. The bold expression of palm fronds provides a great environment for strong statements.

Christmas light installation on palms is an acquired taste and talent; those of us who are long-time transplants to Florida have honed our personal Christmas lighting tactics to Griswaldian proportions. Professionally, we have learned from the best homegrown skills to include, or exclude, liberal use of miniature light strings wrapped on trunks, strung along palm fronds (which is exceptionally difficult on any palm, but particularly on dates which sport panther-claw sized thorns). Florida has commercial establishments that keep palms wrapped in miniature lights year-round and there are signature lighting designs on the trunks of several large Sabal palms at the entrance to Miami Beach from Biscayne Bay and in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

From the Source

The Four Seasons Resort in Nevis, West Indies is a good example of using plant material and water features to create a great lighting design. Palm species present a wide variety of opportunities to produce dramatic lighting effects. The grand scale and form of many large palms including Coconuts, Dates, Royal Palms, and others lend themselves well to both uplighting and downlighting, using the palm as a post from which to light ground surfaces without adding freestanding poles to a space.

In terms of light sources, there are many options depending on site conditions. From an appearance perspective, metal halide, preferably color-corrected metal halide, halogen, and quartz emit cool, clear, brilliant white that favor plant material.

From an environmental perspective, a large portion of our work in tropical environments is coastal. In Florida and the Caribbean basin, sea turtles are protected species that lay eggs on the beach before returning to sea. Seas turtle hatchlings, in the absence of artificial light, are attracted to the moon rising or setting over the sea, and make their way seaward following the light.

In the presence of artificial light onshore, turtles are misdirected and may return to land, greatly increasing their already high mortality rate. Environmental legislation strictly controlling light sources and applications must be adhered to in Florida; many Caribbean locations are adopting similar limitations. Typical controls include using completely shielded fixtures, avoiding metal halide in favor of sodium vapor, as the yellow wavelengths of sodium are less attractive to turtles. Exclusive use of bollard height or lower fixtures, avoiding uplights on palms in their entirety, as a means to light entire outdoor spaces at coastal projects is more the norm than the exception. These controls, although somewhat difficult from a design perspective, can still contribute to a striking effect for a designer with experience in these techniques.

The New Technology Wave

The image above shows an incandescent lighting design located in Palm Beach, Florida at the end of Worth Avenue. The photographer turned off the decorative coach lights, which are dimmed very softly, to show the subtle shadows that were accomplished by 50 watt PAR 38 Halogen fixtures that uplighted and downlighted the large trees.

Given the threat of hurricane-force winds, most municipalities will require that pole-mounted fixture installations meet substantial wind-loading requirements, in some cases as severe as 140 mph in coastal South Florida. Again, durability is the key to minimizing damage and replacements. Even the average everyday thunderstorm can produce impressive wind gusts, so wind loading is not just a disaster consideration, but a sound daily practice.

In our work we have both participated in and witnessed stunning advances is lighting technology and applications that are not necessarily limited to tropical environments; however, a high percentage of our hospitality design work is tropical. We have been involved in such special effects as illuminated fog, pool bottoms and hospitality terraces, individually-stranded fiber optic that is programmed, fiber optic starfield ceilings, fiber optic end light and side light pool, wall, and step lighting, internally illuminated translucent building and graphic forms, and other special effects that have increased longevity from the absence of freeze and frost.

According to George Winterling of Win-Pro, Inc. in Palm City, Fla., clients can have simple lighted gardens or they can opt for three-dimensional laser and fiber optic projections and the possibility of thousands of colors. The image below shows an upscale residential setting that used Mercury Vapor Lighting for the patio of clothing designer Valentino’s home in Italy.

George Winterling

George Winterling of Win-Pro, Inc. in Palm City, Fla. The company has created custom residential lighting designs in various tropical settings.

The difference is in the details when it comes to lighting design, regardless of the location, weather it is interior or exterior. Excellent lighting equipment and technology is available but with slight modifications, nighttime adjustment and proper placement of equipment, we can offer clients a beautiful and unique way to experience their environments at night.

Endless Possibilities

Due to the delicate and extended nature of tropical plants, their illumination takes on a fantasy-like appearance. Underlighting with MR16’s makes translucent red leaves glow and can showcase the unique shape of a banana leaf.

Designs need to be energy efficient and offer long-life lamps and electronics. We need to respect the environment as well as our neighbors and minimize light pollution and glare. We also need to make sure that whomever takes care of the property is aware of how everything works, and understands the subtleties of the nighttime adjustments and the intentions of the designer. Architects, designers and installers need to work together as a team to provide the best solutions for light fixtures, paving and plant material placement. We need to insure that the installation meets or exceeds local and national codes and safety requirements. The property owner needs to understand how to operate the switching, dimming, remote controls and voice commands that can activate systems.

The technology that we incorporate into our lighting systems today can be summed up in the cliché, "the impossible only costs just a little more money". Clients can have simple lighted gardens or they can opt for three-dimensional laser and fiber optic projections and the possibility of thousands of colors. We have ways of lighting steps with fiber optic technology where the source is almost invisible. Light Emitting Diodes (LED’s) that can project any of 16,000 colors are available and are rated to last 100,000 hours. Custom signs, roadway and path lights that work with solar lighting are available. We have camera systems that the property owner can operate from any computer and view the property from anywhere. The technology is endless.

Lighting South Florida

Tropical lighting design generally involves uplighting palm trees. The choice for the lighting designer is generally the one between direct burial, well light or above ground fixtures. The basic technique of uplighting palm trees involves aiming the light at the top of the tree and not at the center of the trunk. A palm tree with a hot spot in the center of the trunk with the palm fronds dark are a waste of money. A good rule is to keep the light 30 inches from the palm to eliminate a bright bottom of the trunk. I usually use two lights per palm with one at 8 o’clock and one at 4 o’clock. The choice of flood or spot optics depends upon the height and spread of the tree. For example, we usually light coconut palms with one or two fixtures and date palms with four fixtures placed five to six feet away from the trunks. Ambient lighting around the landscape illumination determines the brightness of the design in most cases.

Because of the weather in South Florida, many of our clients prefer to stay indoors and look at the outdoors at night from the comfort of the interior. Florida homes are becoming nearly the size of their property and can take up almost the entire lot. When this happens, we concentrate on the entries and views from inside and covered patios and loggias.

Frontlighting Areca Palms with PAR 38’s will pick up details in the fronds. Photographs courtesy of Robert Daniels.

Florida homes on the ocean are basically not permitted to have outdoor lighting and require protective window treatment so that light does not escape because of the nesting habits of the sea turtles. Some of our clients who spend up to $20 million to buy an ocean front estate are surprised when they learn they cannot light the breakers, beach or even palm trees because of environmental regulations regarding sea turtles.

In my opinion, all tropical environments that are near the ocean should incorporate copper, composite or plastic fixtures as salt water starts to destroy fixtures immediately. Some fixtures made of very good quality aluminum are acceptable. I generally use 120 volt fixtures which last longer and hold up better than 12 volt systems. There are many 12-volt fixtures but I try not to use the MR16 – 12-volt lamp because the lamp uses a bi-pin plug or base that condensation almost always shorts out. Others may disagree, but I feel there are better 12-volt options and I encourage designers to look at PAR 36 screw terminal Lamps. Beam selections are very nice and the new electronic ballasts are great. Alternatives to Halogen or Incandescent lamps are Mercury Vapor, Metal Halide, LED’s, Fluorescent and others. There is an unlimited availability of color qualities and beam spreads.

In the Caribbean, Hawaii and South Pacific, due to the tropical environment, people live outside all year. The new technologies involving fiber optic lighting for pools, lanterns, and uplighting trees, especially near water is totally safe and dramatic. Fiber optic landscape lighting can be very bright and the light source easily hidden. We also have propane insect devices that eliminate the need for screen enclosures. I import copper propane torches from Hawaii and use them in Florida and Caribbean. Pool lighting and spa lighting is very dramatic when done with fiber optic and or LED’s.

The technology available today incorporates beauty, security, audio and video and many special effects that can be either very subtle or very dramatic. The challenge for lighting professionals is to try and keep up with the equipment, engineering, switching and control systems, techniques and code requirements. Creating a great outdoor environment is a team effort between the architects, contractors and property owners and local community.

According to Robert Daniels, IALD, principal of Brilliant Lighting Design, Inc. in Miami, Fla., "the fingerlike appearance of the Areca Palm allows for both interesting frontlighting and backlighting techniques that make for great patterns, while the clusters of leaves allow for the layering of light." In addition, the interior lighting of clusters using PAR 38 can create a dramatic effect.

Janet Lennox Moyer, IALD

"Tropical" projects typically mean salt-air environments. The first issue I always consider in specifying landscape lighting is the quality of the fixtures and the materials used to manufacture outdoor fixtures. Since our clients spend a lot of money to purchase and install outdoor fixtures, we need to convince them to spend the money up front to get good quality. We need materials that can withstand the corrosive environments in a coastal area.

There are three ‘environments’ that need to be considered: the salt air, the salt water and the salt soaked ground. Of the three environments the ground is typically the most destructive as it holds the moisture that encourages corrosion. Good quality composite materials will holdup better than aluminum fixtures in tropical environments. Aluminum is the standard material for typical outdoor fixtures as it has many manufacturing benefits, but it is weak in corrosion resistance. So, a better choice in tropical locations is either composite or brass fixtures.

Tropical lighting should showcase color, which can be accomplished by frontlighting and underlighting bedding plants with PAR 38 and MR16. Photographs courtesy of Robert Daniels.

For below grade fixtures composite is great. Composite fixtures don’t have the heat dissipation capacity of aluminum or brass, so the fixtures have to be physically larger. I use caution in specifying composite fixtures in aboveground locations because the tensile strength is not as high as the metals. This means that at the pivot-point or along the arm portion of the fixture, breakage will occur more quickly than a metal fixture. So for above-grade adjustable fixtures and for downlights, I will specify brass or bronze fixtures. There are companies such as Rain Light in Australia that are making aluminum-bronze fixtures that hold up well and are competitively priced for our market.

Since the lifestyle in tropical locations tends towards more outdoor night-time activity than cooler locations, light levels at patios and other ‘task’ areas needs to be carefully planned. There will typically be more areas that need higher light levels than ‘normal’ landscapes. Normal landscape light levels range from 0.25 footcandles to 0.75 to 1.0 fc for general lighting and task lighting or focal lighting can be as high as 2-5 fc. In high use areas the general lighting will increase towards the 1fc end which directs all lighting towards higher levels to balance the contrast between non-task and task areas.

Even though tropical projects tend towards higher light levels, these levels are still considerably lower than interior levels. To make best use of indoor-outdoor spaces, control systems need to be coordinated between the interior and exterior spaces. Provide either simple dimming to lower the interior levels to balance with the exterior levels or preprogrammed scenes that automatically balance between the two areas.

Bugs are often a bigger issue in tropical climates such as Florida, Texas, or other humid areas. In these areas bugs will invade fixtures and can quickly completely fill the interior of a fixture. Well made fixtures that have tight-fitting components and good water seals might discourage an invasion, but might not stop it. So, installers often coat fixture parts with bug repellents. For tree mounted fixtures, treating the mounting hole with a repellent or disinfectant can discourage invasion from bugs and diseases.

Lighting Palms in Tropical Settings

“The proper positioning of the fixture will illuminate the plant uniquely. Add to this various optic patterns and the brightness of the lamp and this uniqueness becomes amplified. Every single plant or tree that is illuminated has a point of perfection that can be achieved with due diligence,” says Robert Daniels. Showcasing the details of the plant material with the other features at the site, (such as placing a coral stone wall next to bamboo for textural comparison as shown above), will make the location more inviting. In addition, the opportunity to combine a spectacular water feature with a dramatic lighting design will enhance any location, such as framing a pool with tall Vecia Palms lit to full height (30’) using PAR 38 and MR16.

In lighting tropical plant materials, we need to think about the rampant growth that a warm climate encourages. This means that lighting systems need flexible infrastructures. The wiring components-transformers, wires, controls all need to have spare capacity for future increase of electrical load. As plants grow higher wattages might become necessary or additional fixtures. As gardens expand, the lighting system needs to be able to respond.

Many palms have textured bark, so this characteristic should be ‘softly’ grazed to accentuate the patterning. Many designers light the trunk, but, often at too bright a level and/or at too severe an aiming angle. If a fixture is aimed directly towards the trunk, this stops light from getting all the way up the trunk and spreading out across the entire width of the canopy. Generally, the canopy should be lit to a brighter level than the trunk.

To accomplish this means positioning the fixture to aim slightly a way from the trunk and often using a lamp with a relatively narrow beam-spread, say 18-27 degrees so that is can reach the height of the canopy and cover the canopy’s spread. Because narrow beam-spread lamps have higher candlepower output than the same wattage lamps with flood beam-spreads, this means using care to limit the amount of light that actually hits the trunk or it will be too bright within an overall composition.

Also, many palms ‘pup’ sending up new shoots from the ground. With this type of palm, it is important to know if the pups will be allowed to develop or will be pruned out as they sprout. If the palm is allowed to pup, it will increase its width at ground level, and the new pups will often interfere with lighting effects of existing fixtures. So, once again, the lighting system needs to be flexible. Existing fixtures need to be reviewed at night to see if they need to be relocated. And, additional fixtures will need to be added to the system as the palm colony expands.

Regarding the question of what light source-lamp to use for a project, there is no easy answer. The reliability of low voltage systems has to do with the quality of the equipment and the installation. I have used PAR36, MR16, MR11, and subminiature incandescent lamps and had both good results and bad. Success always relates to quality. My experience is that in outdoor areas the wide selection of wattages and beam-spreads in MR16 and MR11 lamps (and soon MR8 lamps as fixtures become available) offers unlimited ability to create effects. Over the 20 plus years that I have been using these lamps, since they first became commercially available in the early 1980’s, I have found them to be very reliable.

The Future of Technology

Technology is changing rapidly in the lighting industry. Soon LED’s might be a source that has many uses in landscape lighting. But, as with any new technology, we need to be careful that the equipment can first produce the lighting effects that we want and then hold up in a destructive environment. Fiberoptics have offered us benefits due to the remote electrical source, but they have some limitations due to the inherent inefficiency of the light delivery and the complicated, limited-tolerance installation requirements. With so much technology at our fingertips today, sometimes, we need to step back and consider just how much of it our clients really need. hello

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February 26, 2020, 8:08 am PDT

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